Tom Peters started a movement in 1997 – “Brand You” for short – that insisted the one sure way to professional fame and fortune was to create a unique individual brand. This brand, he declared, was essential in engineering a career that would be extraordinarily meaningful, richly satisfying and remarkably lucrative. Which meant you’d make a lot of money being YOU.
This then-radical idea has been widely adopted. Rapid advances in technology bolstered this self-absorption – selfies, anyone? – while paradoxically connecting individual brand-creators with their peers across the globe.
But what do you do when you create a brand that doesn’t attract much attention? Try new colors, a bolder font, a louder voice, a more outrageous appearance. Add coarse language and “edgy” behavior and you’ve got a winner!
Welcome to the age of hyper-competition, sound-bite thinking, graphic exaggeration, and a panoply of human confusion, insecurity and fluid identity. What has transpired beyond the motivated workforce Mr. Peters envisioned is a pernicious level of narcissism that threatens the future.
Ironically, Peters’ vision for super brand professionals was that each would be a powerful free agent in a fast-changing marketplace in which loyalty and commitment were of incidental importance. Developing and strengthening a personal brand was key to lasting competitive economic advantage. The idea was to get good enough to be able to write your ticket anywhere.
But if the “anywhere” you want to go is full of like-minded individual brand builders, who creates the infrastructure necessary to hold an enterprise together long enough to employ these wunderkind? A brand has to be noticed in order to be valued. Who is doing the noticing?
What began as an exciting personal invitation and adventure has blossomed into a collective nightmare. Is it all Tom’s fault? Of course not. But he certainly got a ball rolling just as technological innovation was ready to explode. As the dust continues to settle, we need to remind one another of the necessity of we.
We, as in family and commuity. We, as in members of organizations that rely on collaboration and cooperation to achieve collective goals. Without this sense of place amidst a greater body of people, we are prone to feelings of isolation. The social fabric frays and individuals behave in erratic and destructive ways. We’ve seen too much of this in recent years.
What to do? For starters, we need to place technology in a larger context and remind ourselves it is a tool to assist our work, not a means of self-promotion or a weapon with which to exploit others. We need to reconnect with one another in person and in groups, noticing how we react and respond to one another. We need to rediscover our values, vowing to hold true to those that protect and build every member of our communities. And we need to learn once again to appreciate others for their unique qualities, as different as they are from our own sometimes.
Finally, we need to expect more from our leaders. For too long we have paid politicians, athletes and entertainment stars to set abominable examples. Think about that. We pay them to behave atrociously! No, this is not what we want or need. Instead, we need to shine a light on people who are thoughtful, patient, mature and self-controlled. An increasingly rare breed, indeed.
So thanks, Tom Peters, for encouraging us to find our uniqueness and develop it. Now, we need to become a nation of weavers, who can take beautiful individual strands and weave a new tapestry of excellence, inclusion and care for one another.
It is time to marry the power of me and the necessity of we.